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Today, there are a large number of competing services that allow people to chat online. Unfortunately, all of these services are incompatible with one another. In other words, you will have to register an account on each service that you wish to use. This is like if a mobile phone company required you to buy a service plan with it if you wanted to talk to any of its customers-- such is the sad state of Internet messaging.
Since you probably don't want to register five or six different accounts, I have compiled a list of the most popular services from the standpoint of talking with Japanese people and added my recommendations and short reviews of each.
What the services have in common
- Free- All services can be used free of charge
- Text, voice, and video chat- to use voice and video chat, you will need to have a computer/mobile device with a microphone and camera, respectively
Where the services differ
- Popularity- some services are far more popular in Japan than others
- Exposure of personal information- some services require that you share your e-mail address, mobile phone number, or other personal information with everyone you chat with
|Name of Software||Exposes Personal Information||Requires Mobile Phone #||Reveals Your E-mail Address||Popularity in Japan||Country of Parent Company||Notes|
|Google Talk||Yes (if primary e-mail)||No||Yes||Low||U.S.|
|Kakao Talk||Yes||Yes||No||Low||Korea||Cannot use on Windows/Mac|
|MSN Messenger||Yes (if primary e-mail)||No||Yes||Medium||U.S.|
|Skype||No||No||No||Medium||U.S.||Occasional connectivity issues|
|Yahoo! Messenger||Yes (if primary e-mail)||No||Yes||Low||U.S.||Yahoo! Japan Messenger||Yes (if primary e-mail)||No||Yes||Low||Japan||No English language version|
Yes (If primary e-mail): If you use a chatting service as your primary e-mail address, users on that service will be able to look up your accounts on Facebook, Mixi, Google Plus, and other websites (any account that you used that e-mail address to sign up for).
To jump in and get started with just one account...
Register an account on Skype. Skype can be slow sometimes but it is widely used and likely to be around for a long time. Also, you can easily register a Skype account by submitting only a minimal amount of personal information.
To have the widest reach for making new friends...
Register accounts on Skype, Line, and MSN. This should ensure that you are able to talk to nearly everyone you would like to talk to.
Facebook has a chat feature which can be great for keeping in touch with people you know well. However, Facebook is really designed for keeping in touch with people you already know, not getting to know new people. Also, since most Facebook users have a large amount of personal information on their profiles, they might not be comfortable sharing such information with people they don't know very well.
I recommend getting to know people better via another service such as Skype before becoming friends on Facebook.
Also, Facebook's popularity in Japan is dwarfed by that of Mixi, Japan's home-grown social network. Mixi, however, is much more strict on privacy and has no chat feature. For this reason, Facebook may limit your chances to meet new Japanese people.
Google's messaging service works very similar to MSN. You already have a Google Talk account if you use Gmail or Google Plus. The main downsides to Google Talk are that 1) not very many people know about it and 2) you have to share your Gmail address with everyone you want to talk to, which makes many users uncomfortable.
Kakao Talk is a Korean startup that closely resembles Line. However, since Line is much more popular in Japan, there is no compelling reason to register for Kakao Talk instead of Line if your main goal is to make Japanese friends.
Kakao Talk has two other disadvantages. First, there is no desktop (Windows/Mac) version. In addition, the software will automatically add everyone in your device's address book to your list of Kakao Talk contacts without asking you for permission to do so, exposing your personal information.
Line is the fastest growing communications service in Japan, and among the most popular in the country. That said, Line's desktop software (for Windows and Mac computers) is still immature and lacks many of the features of its competitors. However, since there are so many Japanese users, it is definitely worth trying.
The largest drawback to Line is that you have to provide your mobile phone number to register (Line will send you a text message with an activation code). The linking of accounts to real phone numbers is supposed to prevent spam, but some people may be uncomfortable linking their messaging account to their phone number.
MSN Messenger is fairly popular all over the world. Thankfully, unlike Yahoo!, it doesn't matter whether a user has a Japanese or English account; all users on MSN can freely communicate with one another.
If you use Hotmail, you already have an MSN account. The one large potential downside to MSN is that if you use your Hotmail account as your primary e-mail account, you will have to give people your e-mail address to allow them to message you. In such a case, I would recommend trying Skype instead.
Unfortunately, Skype is not as popular in Japan as it is in other parts of the world; however, many Japanese who are interested in talking with people abroad do have Skype accounts. While the Skype network has intermittent reliability problems, Skype has been around several years and, since it is now owned by Microsoft, will likely be around for many more.
I recommend Skype because it is easy to create an account with minimal personal information. You don't need to share your e-mail address, phone number, or other personal information. So, for getting to know people you don't know very well, Skype is a good choice. In the unfortunate case that the person turns out to be someone you want to avoid, Skype makes it easy to block that user or, in the worst case, to get a new Skype account.
Yahoo! Messenger and Yahoo! Japan Messenger
First, it's important to note that the U.S.-based Yahoo! and the Japan-based Yahoo! Japan are completely separate companies. For this reason, their messaging networks are incompatible; U.S. Yahoo! accounts cannot chat with Yahoo! Japan accounts. Since Yahoo! Japan has been extremely successful in Japan (similar to the success of Google's Gmail in the U.S.), very few Japanese people have a U.S. Yahoo! account.
For this reason, to communicate with Japanese people on Yahoo!, you will want to register for a Yahoo! Japan account. Unfortunately, Yahoo! Japan is only available in Japanese, so you will have to be able to read Japanese to some degree to complete the registration process.
Further, while Yahoo! Japan is among the most popular websites in Japan, the Messenger service has comparatively few users. Japanese people consider Yahoo! to be a website, not a chat service. For this reason, Skype and Line are much better options.
Share your experiences!
Have you had a good experience on a service not listed here? Would you like to share your input with Oh My Japan visitors? Send us your ideas using the form below!